Retracing the Hippie Trail in Istanbul

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For all my talk about Bulgaria being a chance to ‘catch up’ and to make the most of the fast internet and low prices, the month seems to be degenerating into yet another travel opportunity.

I have now left Bulgaria and taken a bus to Istanbul in Turkey. It cost a bargain €20.

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Istanbul has proved a fascinating break for me. I have been here before, circa 1979 (yes I’m that old), but it feels very different this time.

Istanbul was very much on the 1960s-70s ‘hippie trail’. As a teenager stuck in suburban England I used to pour over books about the overland route used by the ‘hippies’ to get to Goa and Kathmandu (or sometimes Thailand).

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This route diverged at Istanbul to go in various directions, meeting again at the India/Pakistan border. I simply couldn’t wait to go do this journey myself. There was a magazine called the BIT guide, written by a collective in London’s Notting Hill Gate; it was really just some photocopied sheets stapled together with information and advice from people already on the trail and bound together with a pink cover. I read it so many times that it was torn to pieces and the ink was all smudged.  Even now I can still recite some paragraphs from it by memory.

The thought of leaving home and travelling the hippie trail, meeting cool likeminded people and leaving my suburban roots behind became one of the main things that kept me going, through some pretty dark teenage years.

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In typical fashion, by the time I got old enough to do it all the routes onwards from Istanbul were effectively closed off. I travelled to Amsterdam and then on to Greece and finally Istanbul. Then I had no idea what to do next. Lebanon were involved in a civil war, Iran were having their revolution and Russia had invaded Afghanistan, meaning that Istanbul had effectively become the end of the road. It was probably just as well; I’d run out of money before I left Athens and was really just surviving on handouts and other people’s leftovers.

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Grand Bazaar

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Spice market

I remembered my previous trip when I came across a restaurant called The Pudding Shop. It is now effectively a tourist trap but back in the day it was the main meeting place for alternative travellers in Istanbul, who left messages for one another on the notice board offering rides or advice, or trying to get in contact with people they’d met on the road (no Facebook in those days). In 1979 it was a great place to hang out, meet other travellers and bag a cheap (meaning free) bed for the night.

For movie fans, The Pudding Shop features in Midnight Express.

This trip, I joined a tour with Urban Adventures and our meeting place was next to The Pudding Shop. How life changes in 37 years eh?

      * Unfortunately none of my 70s photos have survived the past 37 years of house moves, travel, separations, storage units, theft and various other stuff that life has thrown at me, so all these pictures are from my current trip.

      * The hippie trail also branched off to Essaouira in Morocco, somewhere I also re-visited comparatively recently, which you can read here.

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Istanbul has had a few little brushes with terrorism this past year of course. This has left tourist numbers a little low (amongst Western tourists anyway, visitors from the Arab world are still coming) and the prices are reasonable; it is not the bargain destination of Bulgaria/Serbia and such, but it is not so expensive either.

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Taksim Square.  I rented a small flat near here.  Buses and metro are close by

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Lots of different flavours of Turkish Delight.  It’s a bit different from the stuff that we used to get at xmas, coated in icing sugar

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Sultan’s Palace

21 replies »

    • yes I do find the city fascinating and it’s sad to see how the bombings have impacted on the economy. Tourism is around 60 percent down on last year.

  1. Awesome history of the hippie trail there, I didn’t know that Istanbul was popular back then for free spirits. Thanks for bringing the city back in light of recent political instability. Turkey is amazing and safe and should be recognized as such!

  2. First of all… 20 euros for the bus? That is such a bargain! I love Istanbul. It is by far my most favourite city ever. I am so sad with what has happened recently, because I am sure it has affected the tourism there. But reading your post and seeing the photos has brought back such wonderful memories of Turkey.

  3. There is so much of history in these middle east countries but sadly terrorism has ruined it all.The pics look captivating and the turkish delights look tempting.

    • I don’t think it’s dangerous in Istanbul or on the coast. Terrorism is everywhere. Paris and Brussels have both had their fair share, but people still go there.
      But I thought hard about it first, because there has been so much negative publicity.

  4. Instanbul is a place I really want to visit. After the terrorist attacks it is a place though I have put back to the bottom of the list till it’s a bit safer. Great that you have visited again, it’s great going back and seeing the changes in a place 🙂

    • I don’t blame you for waiting until things calm down a little. It’s sad to see the effect it’s all had on the tourist industry though, with visitor numbers so low now

  5. I love that you take a historical perspective. It’s a great reminder that Istanbul’s has had a magical draw for travelers… basically forever. It was the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire after all. Not to imply that you’re that old ;P

    Istanbul is #1 on my must revisit destinations. It was actually my first trip outside North America. We were there during the Soma mine collapse in 2013 and had to run from the riot police in the ensuing riots near Gezi Park. I think if I’d tripped or something I would have gotten trampled. Nothing beats an experience like that for making a trip memorable.

    • Maybe memorable for all the wrong reasons, but yes you’re right. I’m going back for a month now, so I hope I can really get under the skin of the city a little.

  6. Too bad you did not manage to keep any of your old photos, it would be such a pleasure to see it! I had no idea Istanbul was so popular back at the time. The recent happenings changed our mind about visiting this year as well. I hope we will soon, though.

    • Yes I would have liked to compare photos, although of course we didn’t take so many in the days when we had to pay to develop the photos.
      It is worth making the effort to come here. I wasn’t sure but I was surprised how much I enjoyed it

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